Alexander Technique for musicians

Alexander Technique for musicians: Putting theory into practice

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In our second post on Alexander Technique for musicians, we use practical examples to demonstrate how subtle postural changes can make a big difference.

In “Alexander Technique for musicians,” we featured tips from Dana Calvey, a New York City instructor trained in the Alexander Technique. Calvey’s advice focused on core Alexander Technique principles like building awareness of your own body, releasing tension, and moving towards smooth and pain-free playing techniques. Let’s put those principles into action.

Take a look at the images of fellow Alexander Technique teacher Imogen Ragone. In the “before” pictures, whether she’s slicing veggies or playing piano, Ragone demonstrates a posture that many of us fall into all too often — shoulders rolled forward and back hunched.

Such a posture comes from habits that we repeat in everyday life, says Calvey, and those habits also manifest negatively when it comes to playing music. “People have a tendency to grip in their armpits and shoulders, to tighten their arm bones into their torsos,” she describes. “This can cause pain and tightness, regardless of what instrument you’re playing, and I haven’t met anyone who doesn’t do this to some extent.”

Alexander Technique for musicians

In the “after” images, Ragone looks more comfortable, open, and flexible. It might seem like a subtle change, but even minor adjustments when it comes to the back, torso, shoulders, and arms (and your awareness of all of this) can make a huge difference in the quality and health of your playing. Here are a few quick and practical tips to get you from “before” to “after.”

Float the head, release the back

To relieve tension and get your playing as comfortable as you want it to be, Calvey recommends paying special attention to the relationship between head and neck. “Think about your head delicately balancing on top of the spine, releasing any tension all the way down, through the whole back, to the bottom of the pelvis” she says.

A human being’s weight is designed to be distributed through the front portion of the spine, which is located right in the center of the body, and not in the back, Calvey describes. “Our center of gravity can be found through the middle of us,” she says. “When we think of gravity moving through the middle depth of us, it can soften muscular tension and help illuminate our full stature.” Ragone exhibits these principles in the “after” pictures.

Focus on contact

Calvey advises paying close attention to your body’s points of contact with the floor, the chair you’re sitting in, and even your instrument. “Use whatever your body is in contact with for support, which, in this case, includes the piano,” she says. “Try to have your fingers receive the keys of the piano very delicately and don’t just shove them away from you. Let them come to you as well.

“The relationship of the arms to the piano is a two-way street,” Calvey continues. “Arms release away toward the piano, and the piano also can be received and provide support back through the arms.” Such an approach can lead to both a lighter and more powerful touch at the piano, and other instruments as well.

Sit right and rock it

“Any time you’re sitting in a chair or on a stool, notice that your sitting bones, the bottom of your pelvis, rock back and forth like the bottom of a rocking chair,” says Calvey. “If you need to move your torso to get to a different part of the piano, or a drum kit, be mindful that you can perform the movement in a smooth way, by rocking from the bottom of your pelvis. You can move without tightening anything or dis-integrating your back.”

In other words, when you have to shift your body to nail that final cymbal crash or song-ending glissando, keep it organic and don’t force anything. “Just noticing that you don’t have to distort your torso in order to get your body where it needs to be can be really valuable,” she says. “This sort of awareness also helps you stay open and integrated from your pelvis to your head, like in the ‘after’ photos.”

Notice how moveable Imogen is,” Calvey continues. “It’s not that she has to hold a position so her head and spine stay the same – it’s that the head and spine continually have an integrated relationship. She can move in any direction, as long as the dynamic is lively and undistorted.”

Be mindful of the task at hand

When Ragone is performing fine motor skills in the photos, Calvey observes, she has to attend, at least somewhat, to what she’s doing; this includes using her hands in very precise ways, whether it’s dicing ingredients or practicing scales. A lot can be gained by avoiding going on autopilot when performing such tasks.

“If you’re really sensing the weight of your fingers on the keys and the resistance they give, the way they push back, or the weight of the knife in your hands as you cut a tomato and the resistance the tomato is giving to the knife, that can help you release your shoulders in relation to the knife and tomato or keys,” she says. “It can help you get out of the habit of pulling your shoulders in and hunching, which itself gets in the way of playing music.”

Think big

“When you’re performing a small task, like in the photos, there’s not a lot you actually have to do physically to get it done,” says Calvey. “In the ‘before’ pictures, you see Imogen hunched over, making herself small in order to perform a small task. That’s typical behavior in Western culture, especially if you’re hyper-focused on what you’re doing, but it’s not the best way to do things for your body.”

The same caution applies to reading sheet music or a chord chart, Calvey continues. “You’re doing a small task by following notes on a page,” she says. “Don’t make your body get smaller, or reduce your eye focus or overall attention, just so you can see what’s on the music in front of you. Keep letting in your peripheral vision. You don’t have to narrow your gaze in order to read something. You can stay loose and open, and read your music or chart, at the same time, if you’ve worked on the proper awareness to make it happen.”

Do you have any tips on how to stay loose, relaxed, and pain-free on your instrument? Share in the comments below!

Pictures by Jano Cohen. Copyright 2016. All Rights Reserved.

Disc Makers’ regular contributor Michael Gallant’s debut trio album Completely received a four-star review from DownBeat magazine and a five-star review from Critical Jazz, which stated: “This, my friends, is the future of jazz. Fresh, invigorating, progressive – there are simply not enough positive adjectives to list here.” Learn more, download through iTunes, jam along with the new JamBandit app, or purchase through CD Baby. Follow Michael on Twitter at @Michael_Gallant or on Facebook.

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